We live in what appears to be an increasingly challenging world when it comes to fulfilling all manner of public duties. The routine abuse of individuals in social media is well known, the standard of what appears to be ‘acceptable’ comment has, in many cases, reduced public debate to the worst type of bullying. Twenty years ago were the concepts of trolling, ghosting, sexting something we all knew about? Probably not. If the core behaviour existed it wasn’t in the form that it does now. Outside print journalism, the public didn’t have the facility, or the online presence, to be able to either traduce or demonise you, in front of thousands of people at the click of a button; they do now.

No one is immune or ‘safe’, be they public servants, police, medical staff or politicians. They have all been the focus of anger and violence, and we are all aware that the issue of the protection of MPs has been highlighted given the number of threats towards them – particularly, but not exclusively, towards females. We are all aware of the terrible death of Jo Cox MP, who was targeted because she was doing her job, serving her constituents and serving her country, and therefore, serving us. Now, in the midst of the Brexit debates, only three years after Jo Cox’s murder; death threats have been made against MPs, by individuals, who don’t agree with their views. The further worry is that we, as a society are not, sadly, even surprised by these crimes.

Similarly the increase in assaults, particularly on medical staff has been well documented; a study publicized by Unison last year, noted attacks on health care professionals had risen by nearly 10% over a two-year period.

What are going to be the consequences of this? Would you want to undertake a job where abuse is part and parcel of your daily routine and almost part of the job description? If this is not tackled, what human talent is our society going to lose because individuals may, understandably, choose not to put themselves or potentially their family at risk?

How does this affect the Bar?

Twenty years ago, despite practising at the criminal Bar, I had no serious concerns about personal safety. There were some individuals who you would have seen in the cells who were potentially very dangerous or mentally unwell or volatile. As defence counsel one took sensible precautions; you made sure whenever possible that you were accompanied by a solicitor or a representative or that you sat nearest the door, and a prison officer would hover outside. I never had a real problem. Even in the most difficult cases, defendants, even target criminals and their families, seemed to know the system and accept that you were ‘just doing your job’; it wasn’t ‘personal’. Sometimes you prosecuted and sometimes you defended, we still do. Counsel, practising at the criminal Bar, provide a valuable public service to our community. Of course it is not just the criminal Bar that this applies to, but the sort of issues above are more readily apparent in this line of work.

When it gets personal

Recently, I have been the subject of direct personal abuse. It wasn’t pleasant. It was a shock, as it would be for anyone, but I coped and it was dealt with speedily and effectively by the court involved, and by the police.

I reflected to a colleague, who was also the target of the incident, about two things:

  • How would we have coped if we had been very junior and without the immediate resources of a number of police officers, security staff and the full support of the relevant judges? What if you are on your own? Leaving an out of the way magistrates’ court ‘off Circuit’, on a dark night and miles away from supportive colleagues. (We have all, literally, been there.)
  • Is this how it is now?

Getting ahead of the problem

Are we alone in public service, which is the essence of the publicly funded Bar, in not having a problem with this? I can honestly say that I hope the answer to this question is ‘Yes’; that we don’t have a problem.

We, as a profession, have a tendency to soldier on. If things like this do happen our default position is to joke about it rather than to complain about it. If this is an issue that practitioners, other than myself, are experiencing, I am willing to bet that few, if any, report it or record it.

However, if we do nothing to record it or do more ensure the safety, not just of ourselves but of junior members of the profession just starting out, are we helping to maintain the recruitment and retention of quality individuals to our ranks?

Given that we are, mostly, self-employed, we need to think about this as a profession. Is there more we could do to protect ourselves? Even something as simple as a providing a central point of contact to get online abuse removed, which may provide a measure of reassurance to anyone who may face it.

If you are the subject of a crime, there is a clear pathway and response via the police, but it may also be of assistance if this was reported to the Bar Council, or to HM Courts and Tribunals Service to see if there is a problem in particular areas or court centres. There may be more ‘low level’ forms of abuse which people experience but are reluctant to report. Yet the level of it should not be determinative – abuse is not acceptable in any form or to anyone, particularly if it is happening in our place of work. If it is a problem to members of the profession, we should see if there are any practical and sensible measures that might help to stop it or prevent its reoccurrence.

A call for your experiences

So I am asking if you, or anyone you know, has had a problem with threats or violence as a result of being at the Bar? If so, would you be prepared to contact either myself or Sam Mercer, Head of Policy, Equality & Diversity and CSR at the Bar Council? We want to hear about your experience, whether you reported it and how it was dealt with, if at all.

This can be anonymous if you prefer. Your experiences will be valuable in determining what can and should be done to minimise any potential risks, not only to you but to your colleagues and those coming into the profession. If you have suggestions, then again please get in touch. There are a number of things to consider such as mentioned above; perhaps central points of contact for the profession regarding the removal of online abuse, and a clear way of recording or reporting incidents of concern by practitioners.

Fortunately, my experience is limited and resolved and I hope yours is too. Regardless of the extent of your experience, your observations would not only be welcome but invaluable in trying to push back against unacceptable conduct, often criminal, and in providing support for anyone affected by it.

If you have been subject to any of the issues outlined in this article, Sharon Beattie and Sam Mercer would like to hear from you. Contact: sharon.beattie@newparkcourt.co.uk; smercer@barcouncil.org.uk. See also www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk for sources of help.

Sharon Beattie is a barrister at New Park Court Chambers, Leeds and Newcastle.

Violence against NHS: The World Health Organisation says that between 8% and 38% of health workers suffer physical violence at some point in their careers. Violence against NHS staff: a special report (2018) by Health Service Journal and Unison showed that assaults were 10% up on the previous year. The Bar has no such data.